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Obesity and exercise: Pam Newman's working hard to stand and deliver

Once so obese she could walk only with crutches, the preschool director now works out in a Zumba class, with modifications.

April 11, 2011|By Roy M. Wallack, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Pam Newman joined a Zumba class, where she can follow along while sitting on a bench.
Pam Newman joined a Zumba class, where she can follow along while sitting… (Jeff Newman )

When the music starts up in the Zumba dance class at Big Bear's Mountain Fitness Center gym, everyone is on their feet — except for Pam Newman. She's the 300-plus-pound woman in the back of the room who's lost 100 pounds in the last year by violating the "standing to exercise" rule. That's because she enthusiastically kicks her legs and flails her arms … while sitting down on a bench.

Newman, the director of a local preschool and a grandmother of five, can't stand up and dance — yet. A year ago she weighed 440 pounds; for seven years, she barely moved, walking only from her door to the car on crutches. Now, at age 58, she can do things that once seemed impossible: squats while holding on to a bar, reaching down to pick a coin off the floor, lifting her legs enough to see the bottoms of her feet and closing her car door without the arm rests bruising her legs. In late January came her best feat yet: 18 unassisted steps across the gym floor.

"I never thought I could do that, but it's just the beginning," she said. "I'm going to dance, ride a bike, go kayaking, go hiking with my husband, go camping with my grandchildren. They call me a 'gym rat' in here, because I love to exercise so much. It's amazing, looking back, that I didn't always think this way."

Newman's weight grew over two decades with the birth of three children, a sedentary lifestyle and the death of an adult son. The bigger she got, the less she moved, virtually living at her desk and in the McDonald's drive-through. By her mid-40s, she was morbidly obese.

"Do you know the 'Star Wars' movies?" she said. "I felt like I was Jabba the Hutt. Or the Blob. I was not even human." She became depressed, stopped socializing, muffled her outgoing personality and centered her world on food. Spooked by a fall as she topped 400 pounds, she got crutches and gradually lost the ability and desire to walk. Her doctor told her that she needed to get a Lap-Band.

Fortunately, in February 2010, Newman's husband joined a gym. One day, as she waited for him in a freezing car, gym owner Ted Devito came out and coaxed her inside. He put her on a Biodex semi-recumbent bike. She was too big to use the foot pedals but was able to push the arm handles.

"And I liked it!" Newman said.

So began a six-day-a-week workout mania that has not abated. "It's been a process," said Toni Gerlette, Newman's trainer and Zumba teacher. "She couldn't do much at first, but whatever we made her do to get her heart rate up — lift her arms in the air, lift small dumbbells, push the FreeMotion cables, eventually do squats and Zumba — she went all out."

The workouts even helped Newman control her food intake. She reconsidered her impulse to hit the McDonald's drive-through to order four chicken nuggets now that she understood how hard she'd have to work to burn off the 250 calories.

"Now I'd rather be eating carrots and strawberries," she said. Such thinking has helped her lose 8 inches around the waist and drop five dress sizes.

Still more than 300 pounds, Newman knows she has a long way to go. But she's not worried. "If I've accomplished this in 11 months, imagine what's going to happen. I'm so excited. I'm going to be better at 60 than I was at 40 or 30. And I love that I've become a role model."

It's true, Gerlette said. "When people tell us that they're too tired or hurt, we tell them, 'Too tired? Come on — we have a woman who can't even walk and works out.'"

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